National parks really are America’s Best Idea, and the best way to see them is to get off the road and carry your pack to an unforgettable destination. Parks across the U.S. are increasing in popularity each year, so it’s a good idea to plan your trip well ahead of time. Permits are required for some hikes, and parking at high-volume trailheads can be challenging. With some planning and flexibility, motivated park visitors can bag a peak, hike a classic trail, or take the family to a scenic waterfall. You can’t go wrong with one of these iconic treks in some of the most stunning places across the country.
1. Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
Distance: 12 miles Difficulty: Strenuous
One of the signature hiking experiences in the Grand Canyon, the Bright Angel Trail is a long day hike that’s known for its dramatic views. The trail is easy to access from the South Rim just west of the Bright Angel Lodge, and hikers will find multiple turnaround points if they’re to shorten this challenging hike. There are rest houses with water during the summer months at 1.5 miles and 3 miles from the trailhead. The Indian Garden Campground is 4.5 miles along the trail, and the 9-mile round trip is enough for most conquering the trail. (Keep in mind that you’ll be climbing 3,000 feet back to your starting point. The trip back generally takes twice as long as the trip down.) But ambitious hikers are rewarded by traveling an additional 1.5 miles to Plateau Point. Enjoy the incredible views of the canyon and the Colorado River, and rest up a bit for the climb back up.
2. Fairyland Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park
Distance: 8 miles
This loop hike is easily accessed, convenient, and showcases the best of Bryce Canyon’s otherworldly landscape. One of the longer day hikes in this compact park, this trail sees relatively light traffic, offering a nice change from the frontcountry. Expect to see incredible natural features like Fairyland Canyon, Tower Bridge, and China Wall. The trail drops rapidly from the trailhead, descending through red sandstone towers before winding around an easy-to-follow, well-signed track. The climb back to the ridge is tough—be sure to bring plenty of water.
3. Mystic Falls Trail, Yellowstone National Park
Distance: 2.5 miles Difficulty: Moderate
Picking out a single hike in Yellowstone isn’t really fair. The massive park is filled with such a wide variety of hiking options that visitors can find a bit of everything, including waterfalls, mountain views, forested trails, and alpine meadows. But one thing that Yellowstone has that’s unique is its geothermal features, and the Mystic Falls Trail gives hikers a chance to view this fascinating region of the park. Located 2.4 miles north of Old Faithful, this loop trail will take visitors to 70-foot Mystic Falls, where the Little Firehole River drops down from the Madison Plateau. You’ll see steam rising from the thermal features adjacent to the river. Take in the views of the Biscuit Basin Overlook, and you can extend the hike further with a connection to the Fairy Creek Trail.
4. Old Rag, Shenandoah National Park
Distance: 7 miles Difficulty: Strenuous
Rock scrambles, adventurously narrow trail, epic views, and easy access make this not only one of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park but in the mid-Atlantic as a whole. This loop hike takes visitors to the summit of Old Rag, and a side trail to Byrd’s Nest is an opportunity for fun rock scrambling and 360-degree views. Plan your visit for a weekday or early morning on the weekends to get a parking spot, as the lot fills up quickly.
5. Mount Scott Trail, Crater Lake National Park
Distance: 2.5 miles
This short and well-graded hike shows off some of the best views in the park, including the eponymous Crater Lake, which is a brilliant blue hue that must be seen to be believed. The trail is comfortable and smooth, gradually gaining altitude to the summit along the west-southwest side of Mount Scott. The top of the trail gets steeper with looser tread, but the flat ridge and incredible views reward you for the effort.
6. Highline Trail, Glacier National Park
Distance: 11.5 miles
This famous trail takes hikers from the Logan Pass Visitor Center to The Loop on Going-to-the-Sun Road, each turn revealing more epic scenery than the last. The route traces the Continental Divide, but the trail only gains a few hundred feet per mile, staying below the jagged peaks. Hikers will see glaciers, snow-capped mountaintops, cascades, and maybe a herd of curious mountain goats. This glacier-carved ecosystem is fragile—remember to enjoy the wildlife from a distance and stay on the trail.
7. Bridal Veil Falls, Rocky Mountain National Park
Distance: 6.5 miles Difficulty: Easy
This family-friendly hike starts at the historic McGraw Ranch before winding through meadows, tall groves of ponderosa pine, and aspen that glow brilliant yellow in the fall. Several trail junctions offer side trips and extensions, but the main route is well-signed and easy to follow. The last few hundred meters climb steeply to the falls over a series of rocks, ending at the 20-foot waterfall. It’s perfect for a picnic lunch.
8. Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
Distance: 16 miles Difficulty: Extremely strenuous
One of the most epic natural features that a non-technical hiker can summit, Half Dome is a permanent resident on any National Park bucket list. Don’t underestimate the quad-busting work to get there from the valley floor or the challenges of ascending the infamous cables on the side of the formation. This is a serious day hike that challenges hikers right from the start, ascending steep terrain, steps cut from granite, and then the cables themselves. Most start before daybreak to ensure they can reach the top of Half Dome before the possibility of bad weather in the afternoon. Is it tough? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. This is a hugely popular hike, and a permit is required.
Written by RootsRated for Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Mark Byzewski